Sept. 23, 2009
By Larry Watts
Call it Wisconsin's version of the Comfort Zone.
Throwing a freshman into the varsity lineup means a college coach has to be ready to ride the highs and lows of a first-year competitor. But with Caitlin Comfort, all coach Jim Stintzi got was a consistent performance on the cross country trails for the Badgers last fall.
Right from the outset of the season in her first 6,000-meter race, the 5-foot-3 native of Peoria, Ill. was seventh at Iowa State with a time of 22:20. Always running as the third or fourth finisher in the Badger lineup, she never went over the 22-minute barrier the rest of the year, which was highlighted by a 12th place finish (21:18) and Big Ten Freshman of the Year accolades at the Big Ten Championships.
"The team chemistry was phenomenal last year," says Comfort, or C.C. as she is known to her teammates and friends. "I came in here and just bonded with all the girls. We were all so close and on the same page, always encouraging each other. That really helped a lot during the meets.
"Being recognized as the top freshman in the conference wasn't something I expected. I really didn't expect to be up there with (teammate) Hanna (Grinaker, 11th). Crossing the finish line and knowing I had done something to help the team was really great. It's nice to have those individual honors and accolades, but when the team is involved, it makes everything that much sweeter. Coach Stintzi thought we had won the meet, but we wound up taking second (to Minnesota)."
The way she bonded with her Badger teammates should have come as no surprise to Comfort, who got her first taste of Wisconsin cross country while attending a summer camp following her sophomore year at Notre Dame High School in Peoria. She enjoyed her time so much that she returned the following summer and committed to the Badgers.
"I absolutely fell in love with the campus and the city in general on my first visit," she says. "That was the first time I got a chance to meet coach Stintzi and I just fell in love with the girls when I met them. I had this gut feeling this was the place where I was meant to be and you can't go wrong with the combination of academics and athletics."
Adjusting from the three-mile courses in Illinois, where she took first as a junior and second as a senior, to the 6K runs in college, the four-time all-state honoree says she was a bit surprised at how well she did in her first season.
"I think I was more surprised at the Big Tens from a team standpoint because everyone had overlooked us and we weren't expected to finish that high," she says. "But I really love cross country a lot. To me, it's not work; it's fun. And when I'm having fun, I tend to do a lot better."
Comfort says she will never forget her first experience running on the nation's biggest stage at the NCAA Championships. The Badgers finished 21st as a team and Comfort placed 198th.
"That was such a massive crowd on the course; I can't even begin to tell you how scared I was," she says. "It was just amazing to be surrounded by all those All-Americans. All of these runners were probably former sate champions at some point, so you're not alone in that category. You could feel the tension and anxiety before the gun went off; it was very intense.
"But once you start running, you forget all of that. You just don't want to screw up."
A soccer player since the age of 3, Comfort says she didn't really start focusing on a future in cross country and track until after her freshman year of high school. She ran cross country in the fall and played soccer that first spring, when she was the starting left midfielder on the varsity team.
"I think the tack coach was a little upset with me, but I had to try soccer," she says. "If I hadn't played soccer, I probably would have regretted it. But it all worked out and the track coach wasn't angry too long."
As much as she enjoyed soccer, which she still plays on occasion at Wisconsin, Comfort says she found herself at a distinct disadvantage.
"It was probably the fact that I was 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds while trying to guard girls three times bigger than me," she says about her decision. "I was trying to chase 6-footers who had leg strides like gazelles. It was probably then I realized I was going to go farther in my career with running than with soccer.
"But I do like to think soccer took me to cross country. I'm an energetic person and I like to be all over the place, so running on the grass and all the movement really appealed to me."
According to Comfort, soccer did teach her how to handle herself in tight situations.
"I might be pretty good at throwing elbows if I have to," she says with a laugh. "I may be only 5-3, but I like to think I have pretty sharp elbows."
Comfort has yet to experience her first track season for the Badgers. While training for last year's winter campaign, she developed IT Band Syndrome, where the tendon extending from her hip began rubbing against her knee. By the time she was ready to run again, it was already the outdoor season, so Stintzi had her take a redshirt season. So the public relations and marketing major still has four more years of track competition ahead of her.
"I don't mind staying in Madison one more year a bit," she says. "I love this team and this school. If I'm going to be here one more year, I plan on making the most of it."
If she stays healthy, that would mean Comfort would not compete for the Badgers' cross country team in her fifth year.
"If that's the case, I might be able to run unattached in cross country that last year," she says. "But I really haven't thought about it too much and I don't think coach Stintzi has looked that far ahead."
Comfort's training for the upcoming season took a bit of a hit about a month ago when she underwent an appendectomy. She is back on the trails now, averaging 65 miles per week, which is down slightly from the 70 miles per week she had been putting in.
"It's been a gradual process and I'll probably stay between 60-70 all year," she says. "I want to stay smart about my training and listen to my body. I want this to be a healthy season."
A healthy season also means avoiding the recent flu epidemic, which has broke out at the University of Wisconsin. According to Comfort, there have already been some cases of the flu on both the men's and women's track teams.
"Trust me, I'm washing my hands a lot," she says. "It's sad seeing some of these people coming down so sick and they're not allowed to be around others."
With the graduation of All-American Gwen Jorgensen, Comfort figures the Badgers will be overlooked again in the Big Ten world this year. Grinaker will move into the No. 1 slot for Wisconsin, while Comfort anticipates she and fellow sophomore/roommate Ashley Beutler will be switching on and off at the No. 2 position all season.
"Ashley and I do a good job of feeding off each other," she says. "We both seem to be at the same level and it's good to be running alongside her all the time."
Although the Badgers have cut back on their schedule this fall, Comfort says the team is looking forward to hosting the Wisconsin adidas Invitational Oct. 3. It will be the first home meet on their new Thomas Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course.
"We're going to have several Big Ten teams here and it's a beautiful course," she says. "Other courses aren't as hilly or hard, so this will only benefit our team to train on this course."
Other than "not tripping and falling flat on my face," the bubbly Comfort says the one thought that motivates her during the course of the race is, "that big steak I'm going to eat at the end. My dad owns the best steakhouse in Peoria, so I've learned to appreciate a good steak and I can eat like none other without having to worry about a weight problem."